Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle

Did you know that exercise might feel different depending on what part of the menstrual cycle you’re in?

If you’ve ever been upset that you didn’t have much energy or you couldn’t hit weights that normally come easily, it’s time to learn more about what your body might be experiencing.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • How to possibly modify your workouts based on the menstrual cycle
  • What research says on this topic
  • Pros and cons of this method of training

What this post doesn’t provide:

  • Advice for getting your period back or dealing with PCOS, female athlete triad / RED-S, hypothalamic amenorrhea, etc. This is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment from a medical provider. If you have health issues, seek professional medical treatment.
  • Information on menstrual cycle abnormalities

white woman with brown hairs sits on gym floor scrolling through a phone to keep track of exercise and the menstrual cycle

Why Consider Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle?

Many of my athletes and clients over the years notice that they feel different during the phases of the menstrual cycle.

However, there’s often a disconnect in understanding that this can also impact your training. It’s almost a belief that you should just be able to power through.

I’ve seen athletes mentally beat themselves up for not feeling as strong during the second half of their cycle, the luteal phase (especially during the last 5-7 days).

Some people notice they do feel “off” but assume it’s something that’s wrong with them instead of a result of natural hormonal fluctuations.

This can lead to doubts about the training plan or even feeling guilty for not completing a workout as written.

Knowing more about exercise and the menstrual cycle can lead you to more agency and being a better self-advocate in adjusting your own workouts when needed.

The Phases of the Menstrual Cycle & How They Might Affect Workouts

This information is a broad overview and describes to a “idealized” cycle of 28 days. In reality, cycles vary, even from month to month.

Your menstrual cycle is split up into four main phases. Let’s look at each and how it might affect exercise.

1) Menstruation

When the uterine lining sheds and causes menstrual bleeding, this marks day 1 of the cycle.

You may notice mood changes, cramps, and sleep changes that can affect how you feel during training.

After the first couple days, these tend to pass and estrogen begins rising which can make it a good time to start upping cardio intensity and moving into heavier resistance training.

2) Follicular Phase

This is the first half of the cycle which includes menstruation.

The body is preparing to release an egg from one of your ovaries due to the influence of follicle-stimulating hormone.

Though estrogen peaks around ovulation, progesterone is lower in this phase than the luteal phase. For this reason, the follicular phase is often called the “low hormone” phase.

You may notice you feel stronger and more coordinated so it may be a great time to sneak in an extra lifting session, lift heavier, work on more technical lifts like snatches or clean and jerks, or emphasize higher intensity cardio.

white woman with brown hair holds pvc pipe overhead in a wide grip

3) Ovulation

Toward the middle of the cycle, estrogen rises and luteinizing hormone causes an egg to be released from the ovary into one of the fallopian tubes around day 14.

Many people notice strength training, HIIT and exercises that require more balance or coordination still feel good during this time due to the spike in estrogen and testosterone.

However, other people may feel a bit “off” during ovulation, so pay attention to your signals. 

4) Luteal Phase

This is the second half of the cycle which happens after ovulation. If there was no fertilization after ovulation, the egg disintegrates.

Progesterone rises and estrogen – despite dipping after ovulation – comes back up.

This phase is often called the “high hormone” phase. The last 5-7 days of the luteal phase are often associated with PMS. Progesterone decreases at the end of this phase and menstruation begins. 

During the luteal phase, you may begin to notice changes to how you feel in your training. In the first part of the luteal phase, you may start noticing a drop-off in performance and recovery with the greatest impact occurring from the mid-luteal phase to the end of the luteal phase.

This might be a time to shift to more moderate, steady state cardio or moderate loads in your strength training. 

Internal body temperature rises by approximately 1 degree Fahrenheit, and you may feel hotter, especially during more intense training.

Your coordination and balance may be reduced so more high skill exercises like gymnastics or Olympic lifting could feel “off.”

woman performs a stretch with the back knee on the ground

You may not be sleeping as well and fatigue can increase. Mood changes are common, as are bloating, cravings, headaches, lack of motivation, low energy level, and more.

These can absolutely affect how you feel during your workouts, so you may want to reduce the intensity and / or volume of your cardio or lifting.

This could also mean focusing on more mobility work or lighter technique work in your lifting, active recovery, or taking an extra rest day or two.

There is no compelling evidence that you need to stop training completely – even lifting – during the luteal phase. 

What Does Research Say About Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle?

Exercise science research involving the menstrual cycle with regard to strength, endurance, and performance is still emerging.

Yes, we know more about the effects of hormones like estrogen and progesterone on the body. However, we can’t definitively say that every menstruating athlete should change their training in the same universal way.

And we can’t assume that your ability to perform well is dictated by your menstrual phase. It’s possible to perform well at any point in your cycle.

woman performs a runner's stretch with front foot on the ground and back knee touching the floor

New studies are trickling out, and there’s a lot more to learn. Here are some highlights:

Some studies(1,2,3) have demonstrated that strength training during the follicular phase may yield greater strength and muscle mass gains.

However, this does not mean to skip all your strength training in the luteal phase!

A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis(4) concluded, “Due to the trivial effect size, the large between-study variation and the number of poor-quality studies included in this review, general guidelines on exercise performance across the MC [menstrual cycle] cannot be formed; rather, it is recommended that a personalized approach should be taken based on each individual’s response to exercise performance across the MC.”

Pros and Cons of Syncing Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle

Here are a few considerations if you’re thinking of applying this to your training.

Positives

  • Can help you feel empowered to change your training based on how you feel.
  • May improve body awareness and encourage you to track your cycle.
  • Could introduce more variety into your exercise routine.
  • If you dislike recovery days, this could help you embrace more rest.

Possible Drawbacks

  • Can feel confusing to have to change up your exercise routine every week.
  • If a person doesn’t menstruate, is in peri/post-menopause (the Strength Nutrition Unlocked program is designed for you), or has highly irregular periods, this method is probably not a fit.
  • How you feel can vary from cycle to cycle, making it hard to predict.

white woman with brown hair performs a single leg deadlift with a dumbbell in one hand

Summary

It’s my hope that this article gives you a jumping off point to understand your menstrual cycle better, and a way to have conversations about it with your friends, family, and coaches. Periods are not shameful.

  • There are two main halves of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Ovulation and menstruation also occur.
  • Because of hormonal variations, many people experience changes in how they feel while training or in the gym. Also, you may feel different from one cycle to the next.
  • Strength levels may feel higher in the follicular phase and lower in the luteal phase.
  • You may want to stack harder workouts with more volume, heavier weights, or more cardiovascular intensity in the follicular phase. In the luteal phase, you might consider lighter technique or accessory work, less intense cardio, or unstructured movement, especially in the last week. 
  • This method of training may not work for everyone, especially if you have irregular cycles or you’re in peri-/post-menopause.

References

1 Sung, E., Han, A., Hinrichs, T. et al. Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. SpringerPlus 3, 668 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/2193-1801-3-668

2 Wikström-Frisén L, Boraxbekk CJ, Henriksson-Larsén K. Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2017;57:43-52. DOI: 10.23736/S0022-4707.16.05848-5

3 Kissow, J., Jacobsen, K.J., Gunnarsson, T.P. et al. Effects of Follicular and Luteal Phase-Based Menstrual Cycle Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Mass. Sports Med (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01679-y

4 McNulty, K.L., Elliott-Sale, K.J., Dolan, E. et al. The Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Exercise Performance in Eumenorrheic Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 50, 1813–1827 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-020-01319-3

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Hi, I'm Steph!

Nutrition and fitness coach for women, Lord of the Rings nerd, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more, not less: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.

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